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Industrial vs. internet scale

I was watching this talk with Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures last night. He was recently in Toronto for a Wattpad board meeting (USV is an investor).

It’s an interesting discussion that touches on education, healthcare, Canada’s tech ecosystem, as well as a bunch of other things. But one point that Albert made that I particularly like is the comparison between industrial and internet scale.

In both cases, it’s all about growth and scale. The bigger a firm can get, the better.

But with industrial production, scale is all about driving down the marginal cost. This is also known as economies of scale. As firms increase in size, efficiencies are found that allow the unit of production to drop in price. This, in turn, creates defensibility, because smaller firms simply can’t compete in the market.

With internet platforms the situation is different. Sure, there are still economies due to scale, but their competitive advantage is often derived from the fact that, on the margin, every new user increases the value for every other user on the network. This is called a network effect.

A perfect example of this is Facebook. People use Facebook because all of their friends are there. And as more and more friends join, it becomes increasingly more valuable. Without friends, a social network has little value. This make starting one fairly difficult. However once started, network effects are incredibly difficult to dismantle. This is their defensibility.

Another network effect example that Albert mentions is search (i.e. Google). This one isn’t so obvious. It may not seem like there are network effects with search, but there are. As a search user, you enter a query and then select from a list of results. In doing so you’re actually helping the search engine figure out what the best and most relevant results are for the keyword(s) you just entered. Again, in the end, everybody benefits.

I found this interesting because, in the case of internet platforms, scale is directly related to value proposition. The bigger something gets, the more useful it becomes. Now, you could maybe argue that the same is true for industrial production, but it’s a bit more tenuous. The direct link is cost.

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